Arthritis & Anxiety
Sometimes I jokingly refer to myself as a “self-diagnosed hypochondriac,” because I often feel anxious that I’ve contracted a new serious condition or disease whenever I have to go to the doctor for something. However, I probably shouldn’t joke about it even a little bit because there are people who have hypochondria as a real and debilitating disorder. Do I worry too much or unnecessarily whenever health issues pop up in my life that aren’t RA or RA-related? I’m not sure, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’m willing to bet that added anxiety regarding one’s health in general is a common “side effect” of living with a chronic illness like RA. I can’t be the only one who freaks out whenever some seemingly new or strange physical symptom suddenly appears. Right?
Speaking of sudden and strange physical symptoms…about a month ago a new condition afflicted my body out of the blue. One day I noticed that both of my armpits felt really itchy and painful–so painful that it hurt just having my arms resting at my sides. What on earth is this now? As soon as I got a chance, I went into the bathroom and pulled up my shirt to see what the heck was going on under my arms. Surprised and disgusted, I saw several bumps/lumps under both arms–some red and some that weren’t. The lumps were hard and painful to touch and my immediate neurotic fear, of course, was the C-word. CANCER! Oh my God, I have lymphoma from my RA medication! I tried to tell myself to calm down and be reasonable and that the real chance of it being cancer was probably pretty slim. But what was it? I made a decision to bring my painful, lumpy armpits over to my local urgent care clinic that evening. I couldn’t wait; I was too nervous and a flurry of worries flooded my brain. It also didn’t help that I couldn’t resist googling my symptoms, despite knowing this was a terrible idea. The Internet is often not your friend if you have hypochondriac tendencies, I’ve learned.
Thankfully, my brief urgent care appointment confirmed that the mystery armpit lumps were not cancer, but instead some kind of bacterial infection that would go away with antibiotics. Whew. They were itchy, painful, and miserably uncomfortable–but not serious. I felt a wave of relief rush through me when the doctor assured me that I didn’t have cancer or some new chronic illness (Auto-Immune Armpit Disease?!).
Having one serious disease is hard enough to deal with and I often wonder if I could truly handle anything else on top of it. I’m sure I would learn how to deal with additional illnesses if I had to, but it’s something that I desperately do not want. Living with RA and everything that goes along with it on a daily basis is already more than enough. However, I do know that it’s not uncommon to develop additional auto-immune diseases if you already have one. Personally I have friends who have multiple auto-immune diseases, such as lupus and RA, or MS and RA, and others. My heart goes out to them when I think about what it must be like battling against several of these nasty diseases at the same time. I can’t imagine it.
Before I was diagnosed with RA at age 18, I was a bit of a neurotic “worry-wart” kid. Although back then whenever I got sick I didn’t immediately worry that I had anything truly serious. Pre-RA, I didn’t take any medications that weakened my immune system or increased my chances for developing scary diseases/conditions such as TB, pneumonia, heart disease, or the dreaded cancer. My RA diagnosis itself was extremely shocking; I had no clue that I could get something like RA and especially at age 18. The innocence of being young and healthy and untouchable from disease was shattered the day my RA was confirmed in 1997. It’s understandable to worry about the real possibility of getting hit with additional serious conditions if RA could “get me” at age 18, for no apparent reason.
So what can I do to stay calm and not freak out when, say, a cough lingers on for months (oh my God, I must have TB now!). How do I stop feeling like my body is a ticking time bomb? Worrying has always been a part of my personality, I think, yet has definitely increased from my experiences living with RA. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to totally stop worrying about my health. So far the best “plan” I can come up with for dealing with rational and irrational health fears is to stay on top of my medical care. If I feel that something is wrong with my body, I don’t ignore it; I’ll get on the phone right away to make an appointment at my clinic, or I’ll head over to urgent care. Sometimes I have probably overreacted to health concerns and maybe “wasted” money on going to the doctor in the past. Checking in with your doctor when you’re worried about something is usually worth it, though, even if just for peace of mind. Talking with family or friends sometimes helps, too, I’ve found. It’s always good to have someone you trust tell you, “It’s OK, you’re going to be fine.”